Monday, April 26, 2010

In Kandahar, people want electricity more than polio vaccines, study shows

From The Canadian Press:

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - There is a wide gulf between what people in Kandahar want in terms of reconstruction and what the international community, including Canada, has been delivering, says research conducted for the Canadian military.

A campaign assessment, penned last year by the Canadian Expeditionary Force Command, paints a stark assessment of the choices of Ottawa has made when it comes to development projects in the war-consumed region.

"We are visible, but not meeting perceived needs," concluded a state of public perception survey, released to The Canadian Press under access to information laws.

When asked what are the biggest challenges facing the community in which they live, people in Kandahar overwhelmingly listed unemployment, an absence of stable electricity and high prices as their biggest concerns.

Education, health care and the restoration of irrigation - all signature projects of the Canadian government - scored much lower, according to a poll conducted as part of the research.

"One half of Kandaharis view unemployment and electricity as the greatest challenges in their community," said the survey conducted in February 2009, but included as part of the report written last June.

The poll also found that many Afghans were oblivious to efforts to address their needs, a stunning revelation given the size and scope of the international reconstruction mission.

"Few people are aware of projects to alleviate (the) top two issues: unemployment and electricity," the survey said.

"Many Kandaharis are aware of projects addressing concerns which have lower priority."

There was at the time of the survey a sinking feeling among residents, whom NATO's counter-insurgency strategy is meant to win over.

"Fewer Kandaharis feel their family's prosperity is increasing than in previous polls; international economic assistance is heavily preferred over military assistance."

The Canadian military does not discuss the methology of their poll, nor the sample sizes, for operational security reasons.

Canada's civilian representative in Kandahar denied that Ottawa's plan was not meeting the needs of residents and indicated the choices were made based upon consultation with Afghans in 2007-08.

Ben Rowswell said the needs in this country are vast.

"So, we had to be very selective in where Canada was going to invest its development assistance and make an impact," he said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"The needs back then identified were primarily in education and health."

Ottawa has made eradicating polio, the construction or repair of 50 schools and the refurbishment of a major irrigation dam its signature projects.

Those plans and a host of other "priorities" were calculated with the looming end-date of the military mission in mind and the blatant political need to show progress.

Rowswell said fixing the electricity problem is a massive undertaking.

"We were not as confident we could have tangible progress in that area by 2011 and because the entire idea behind focusing was to demonstrate to Canadians that their investments would make a concrete difference on the ground," he said.

Since the poll was conducted there has been a dramatic increase in business activity in the city, with many shops brimming with goods and tractor trailers worth of reconstruction supplies clogging the streets.

But underneath the hustle and bustle is a fragile, often crumbling infrastructure. There are rolling electrical blackouts throughout the city and in some districts power is only on for two hours a day.

The result is shuttered businesses and idle machinery.

In interviews with The Canadian Press, business leaders in Kandahar estimated that if given stable electricity, companies could produce 6,500 desperately needed jobs within months. Such an employment boom would rob the Taliban of a pool of potential fighters.

Hadagatullah Tokhi, the director of Kandahar's power supply, said the plan has been to hook the city's power supply grid to the Kajaki hydro-electrical project in neighbouring Helmand province. But it has been a slow, frustrating process because the transmission lines and the dam itself sit in territory often controlled by the Taliban.

A U.S. agency recently conducted a survey of power needs. Kandahar requires 100 megawatts of power, but is only receiving a quarter of that, Tokhi said.

"There are almost 40 factories that I know of that are shut down because of no electricity," said Tokhi through an interpreter. "We often can't have water because of no power. We need power to run in pumps. We could provide many business to the people with electricity."

Tokhi runs the utility out of a ramshackle building near the governor's palace, where broken utility boxes are piled on a back door balcony and motorcycles belonging to employees are parked in the masonry-smashed front entrance.

Canada recently purchased some diesel electric generators for the city, something the U.S. has done on a couple of occasions over the last few years.

But there is a reluctance to that, despite the benefit. Many in the international community argue over who is going to pay for the fuel to run them.